Saturday, October 16, 2010

On Lexington Green (1)

The American Revolutionary War began on April 19, 1775, when a British force based in Boston, Massachusetts, tried to seize the stores of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress housed in the town of Concord. En route to Concord, the British “red coats” met, and exchanged fire, with local militia on Lexington green. Neither side sought to engage the other, and the exact causes of the shooting remain in doubt. Interestingly, this is the case where a historical mystery persists not because of a dearth of evidence (as is true for many of the topics I’ve written about), but in spite of an abundance of it. Numerous Americans gave written depositions describing what they saw and heard on that bloody April morning. A number of British officers likewise recorded their experiences. Fascinatingly, both the pool of American sources and the pool of British sources show a large degree of internal consistency, but there are stark differences between them. On one point in particular, there is insistent disagreement: each pool of sources claims that it was the other side that fired first.

Ultimately, the question of “who fired first?” cannot be answered with certainty. Nevertheless, the abundance of source material still makes this incident interesting to consider from a number of angles. In this post (and I intend to write more about Lexington in the future), I briefly comment on depositions about this battle made by men that were on Lexington green with the town's militia company. These depositions were given to Provincial authorities on April 24-25, 1775.

Sketch of British and American Movements at Lexington. Using a Google Maps screenshot, I've very roughly indicated the direction of the British advance (in red) and the subsequent American retreat (in blue). Major John Pitcairn led six companies of British light infantry into Lexington at around 5AM on April 19. At least the lead two companies (those of the 10th and 4th regiments of Foot) advanced onto the green. At the time, the Lexington militia company, commanded by Captain John Parker, was partially formed on the north end of the triangular-shaped village green. Parker ordered his men to disperse as the British advanced towards his men. It was during this dispersal that fighting began.

The Depositions of Men with the Lexington Militia

  • Captain John Parker: “upon [the British Troops'] sudden approach, I immediately ordered our Militia to disperse and not to fire. Immediately said Troops made their appearance, and rushed furiously, fired upon and killed eight of our party, without receiving any provocation therefor from us.”
  • Nathaniel Mullikin and 33 others: “…about five o' clock in the morning, hearing our drum beat, we proceeded towards the parade, and soon found that a large body of Troops were marching towards us. Some of our Company were coming up to the parade, and others had reached it; at which time the Company began to disperse. Whilst our backs were turned on the Troops we were fired on by them, and a number of our men were instantly killed and wounded. Not a gun was fired by any person in our Company on the Regulars, to our knowledge, before they fired on us, and they continued firing until we had all made our escape.”
  • Nathanael Parkhurst and 13 others: “…about five o' clock in the morning, we attended the beat of our drum, and were formed on the parade. We were faced towards the Regulars, then marching up to us, and some of our Company were coming to the parade with their backs towards the Troops, and others on the parade began to disperse, when the Regulars fired on the Company before a gun was fired by any of our Company on them; they killed eight of our Company, and wounded several, and continued their fire until we had all made our escape.”
  • John Robbins: “…the Company under the command of Captain John Parker being drawn up (sometime before sunrise) on the green or common, and I being in the front rank, there suddenly appeared a number of the King' s Troops, about a thousand, as I thought, at the distance of about sixty or seventy yards from us, huzzaing and on a quick pace towards us, with three officers in their front on horseback, and on full gallop towards us; the foremost of which cried, "Throw down your arms, ye villains, ye rebels;" upon which said Company dispersing, the foremost of the three officers ordered their men, saying, "Fire, by God, fire; at which moment we received a very heavy and close fire from them; at which instant, being wounded, I fell, and several of our men were shot dead by one volley. Captain Parker' s men, I believe, had not then fired a gun.”


  • The depositions given by these men are fairly circumspect, with the notable exception of the separate deposition by John Robbins. What these men indicate (Robbins aside) is that they marched off the green as the British advanced, and while their backs were facing the British, they were fired upon by the British regulars. They did not claim that the British troops were ordered to fire, nor did they claim to have seen who fired the first shot. They state only that the first shot did not come from their ranks.
  • The generally circumspect tone of these depositions is understandable: as the Lexington militia had their backs facing the British, they naturally were less-than-ideal witnesses. When I next write about Lexington, I will discuss the depositions made by other eyewitnesses on Lexington green. These descriptions tend to be more explicit as to how the firing began, but they are also more inconsistent in their description of key details.


  1. Very good info and look forward to more articles on it from a great writer such as yourself. Also it is always nerve racking to compare peoples views on events to get a clear picture. As soon as you think you have it figured out another source says something totally different and we go back to the board to recheck everything.

  2. "Also it is always nerve racking to compare peoples views on events to get a clear picture. As soon as you think you have it figured out another source says something totally different and we go back to the board to recheck everything."

    Couldn't have said it better. This has been my experience time and time again.